Phrenologists at New York State Prisons

face of a prisoner

George Combe, a leading phrenologist and founder of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, visited the New York State Prison at Auburn on June 7, 1839. Underscoring Combe’s authority, New York Governor William Seward accompanied Combe. Combe observed:

Their {the prisoners’} heads presented the usual development of criminals, viz., deficiency of size in many, deficiency of the moral organs in the great majority, deficiency of intellect in many, with large organs of the propensities in nearly all. … Among the convicts was a man in respectable circumstances, who, under religious delusions, had chastised his son, a child, to such an extent that he died. He is sentenced to seven years’ confinement. His intellectual organs appeared to be of average size; those of Combativeness and Destructiveness to be large; and the moral organs rather shallow and deficient.^

Eliza W. Farnham, a proponent of phrenology, served as matron of Sing Sing’s women’s prison from March 1844 to January 1848. Her husband, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, had connections to the New York elite. In 1839, Thomas left Eliza, then age 24, in New York when he set off on lengthy travels in the West. He spent much subsequent time far from Eliza and died in San Francisco in 1848. In 1844, the middle-aged men who dominated New York’s formal offices of authority appointed Eliza Farnham matron of Sing Sing’s women prison. Farnham at the time of her appointment had no experience working in a jail or prison and had never held a public office. She was then 29 years old.

During her first two and a half years at Sing Sing, Farnham edited and wrote the introduction for an American edition of English phrenologist Marmaduke B. Sampson’s 1841 work, Criminal Jurisprudence Considered in Relation to Cerebral Organization. Sampson’ work was a collection of rather dry lectures. Farnham sought to bring Sampson’s work to the “popular mind in republican America.”^ Farnham considered carefully an appropriate title for the work. In an August, 1846, letter to New York lawyer and Sing Sing prison inspector John Bigelow, Farnham wrote:

I wished to have seen you this morning, in reference to a suitable title for Sampson’s work. I think you agreed with me, that the present one was not just what we could wish for a work designed to be so popular as we wish that to be. I wish you w’d call at Appleton’s {the publisher} and propose to them some title by which they may designate it in their next Bulletin.^

Perhaps drawing inspiration from Jeremy Bentham’s popular Rationale of Punishment, Bigelow apparently entitled Farnham’s American edition of Sampson’s work Rationale of crime, and its appropriate treatment.

Lorenzo Fowler, a prominent American phrenologist, was closely associated with Farnham’s production of the American edition of Sampson’s work. Sampson served as the London correspondent for Orson and Lorenzo Fowler’s periodical, the American Phrenological Journal. The Fowler brothers understood how to make intellectual work popularly successful. They combined scholarly forms, evangelical zeal, and shrewd business practices to lead highly successful careers as phrenologists. Their Phrenological Cabinet in downtown New York City displayed:

Busts and Casts from the heads of the most distinguished men that ever lived; also Skulls, both human and animal, from all quarters of the globe — including Egyptian Mummies, Pirates, Robbers, Murders and Thieves

At their Phrenological Cabinet the Fowlers also offered “professional examinations”:

With written and verbal descriptions of character, given when desired; including directions as to the most suitable occupations, the selection of suitable partners in business, congenial companions for life, etc. etc., which will be found most valuable, as well as exceedingly interesting.^

Farnham had such an examination from the Fowlers prior to her appointment as matron at Sing Sing.^ Farnham apparently turned to Lorenzo Fowler for help in producing Rationale of Crime. In its preface, Farnham acknowledged “Mr. L. N. Fowler for aiding me in the selection of cases.”

Farnham appended to Rationale of Crime prisoners’ profiles. These consisted of engravings of prisoners and associated verbal descriptions of character. They totaled five men (beginning with a black man and an Irish man), five women, and eight boys. Tudor Horton did the engravings from daguerreotypes that Mathew Brady made. Both Brady and Horton had businesses located close to the Fowlers’ Phrenological Cabinet and near P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in downtown New York.

Farnham added below the visual portraits of prisoners verbal profiles containing self-assured pseudo-reasoning of astonishing scope. Consider, for example, the profile of the Irish man S.S.:

Eliza Farnham's phrenological characterization of prisoner S.S.S.S. is a vagrant, and inmate of what is termed the Luna House, on Blackwell’s Island. He is an Irishman; was formerly a prize-fighter; was sent to the State Prison for five years for assault and battery, with intent to kill, and since his liberation, a period of some six or eight years, has spent most of his time in the city and county prisons of New-York. Before his mind became deranged, he exhibited great energy of passion and purpose, but they were all of a low character, their sole bearing being to prove his own superiority as an animal. He was both vain and selfish.

The drawing shows a broad, low head, corresponding with such a character. The moral organs are exceedingly deficient, especially benevolence, and the intellect only moderately developed. The whole organization, indeed, indicates a total want of every thing like refined and elevated sentiment. If the higher capabilities and endowments of humanity were ever found coupled with such a head as this, it would be a phenomenon as inexplicable as that of seeing without the eye, or hearing without the ear.^

Farnham’s descriptions of prisoners combined personal facts with tendentious, pseudo-technical analysis:

Eliza Farnham's phrenological portrait of J.B.J.B. is an inmate of the Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. He is reported on the books as early as 1839. His offence on that occasion does not appear. Early in 1843, he was returned to the prison on three indictments, one for assault and battery, and the other two for petit larcency. He was sentenced to six months on each. His first term had just expired when he escaped, made a voyage to the East Indies, and in 1845 was returned on another indictment for petit larceny, under a sentence of six months. Before this sentence expired, he effected another escape, but was soon retaken.

His disposition is exceedingly determined; he is shrewd and cunning, and withal remarkably ingenious. He is exceedingly impatient and chafes very much under confinement; is quarrelsome and much given to fighting.

The head is high in the region of self-esteem and firmness, indicating a strong sense of personal independence and love of freedom. This is one of the first facts that would strike a phrenologist; and it is remarkably verified by his frequent escapes and long voyage. Combativeness is largely developed, and although the head is tolerably high, as a whole, yet the moral region is very defective, there being but a very scanty development above cautiousness and causality.^

Farnham made phrenological conclusions about boys held as inmates at young ages:

Eliza Farnham's phrenological portrait of J.L.J.L. is an inmate of the Long Island Farms, about seven years of age, exceedingly stubborn, mischievous, and troublesome. He is distinguished for these qualities among several hundred children. The drawing indicates a large development of the basilar region, with deficient benevolence and moral facilities generally. The head bespeaks a great destitution of the gentler feelings, and a strong predominance of the selfish and aggressive tendencies.^

Although Farnham’s phrenological determinism would seem to offer no hope for prisoners’ reform, Farnham introduced music and reading into Sing Sing women’s prison as reformative activities. She gained renown as a prison reformer.

After her work on Rationale of Crime, Farnham wrote a pseudo-scientific account of women’s superiority over men and a novel in which a woman models a man into an ideal mate. Belief in the moral superiority of women over men may have helped Farnham understand sex differences in the extent of incarceration (in Sing Sing on Dec. 1, 1847, 7.7 males were incarcerated for every female incarcerated^). The concern for truth in Farnham’s writings is arguably greater than in most subsequent historical accounts of Farnham’s life and work.

Farnham, like George Combe, deserves credit for opposing the suppression of prisoners’ communication at a time when that idea was highly fashionable. Farnham relaxed the regime of communicative suppression in Sing Sing’s women prison late in 1845 and abolished it by January, 1846. A subsequent backlash from other penal authorities caused the regime of silence to be re-established in November, 1847.^

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